Published in the Post Register in January 2010.
In Mao Zedong’s China, four brothers grew up in Canton Province, learning to cook even before they started school.
Today, even as their homeland lurches toward its own version of capitalism, those four men run restaurants in eastern Idaho. Twins Oi and Jung Fong have owned and operated the Canton restaurant in Idaho Falls since 1992. One brother, See, owns the New Star restaurant in Rigby, and another brother, Kigh, runs the Hong Kong and New Hong Kong restaurants in Idaho Falls.
The paths the brothers took included many lean times and stops in Oklahoma, California and Oregon – plus Boise and Twin Falls – but they all eventually settled in eastern Idaho, adapting their cooking to American tastes along the way.
“We know what kind of Chinese food Americans like,” Oi Fong says simply. “We don’t put soy sauce in the fried rice,” he adds by way of example. “It turns the rice dark and people in Idaho don’t like that.”
The diminutive 53-year-old men say their personal taste leans more toward vegetables and rice, while Americans prefer dishes that have become common in Chinese restaurants in the States – sweet and sour pork, pork fried rice and chow mein.
Canton Province is not far from Hong Kong in eastern China, so the men come by the names for their restaurants honestly. And just because they cater to American tastes doesn’t mean the food isn’t necessarily authentic. They feature Cantonese-style pan fried noodles (“chow mein” is Chinese for fried noodles) among other dishes that wouldn’t be out of place in a restaurant in Taishan, the family’s home county. Perhaps more important, you’ll not find them taking prepared foods out of the freezer.
As everywhere, business is a little slower in these days of recession, but Oi and Jung Fong have done well for themselves and their families. Each has sent three children to college – Oi’s to the University of Utah and Jung’s to Boise State – while operating the Canton at the same location on 17th Street for 18 years. They remember the day when there were grain fields nearby.
The men say they don’t see any sign yet that people are starting to spend more easily, but they refuse to cut the hours of their employees and are determined to see this rough time through. After all, they have seen worse.
(Special thanks to Ivy Berry, the Post Register’s director of business administration and a native of Hong Kong, for lending her interpreting skills to the interview for this story. My own Cantonese, learned from two years in Hong Kong but rusty due to an intervening three decades, was inadequate for a newspaper interview and deemed by Oi and June to betray a Hong Kong accent. They were being very, very kind.)